Podcast: How leaders can be liberators of talent
How leaders can be liberators of talent
The world of work is changing faster than ever before. Huge technological, structural and demographic shifts mean that in order to remain competitive, our organisations must start to better leverage the skills and expertise of their employees.
Maggi is here to talk to us today about how we can start to make the shift from simply managing the talent within our organisations, to liberating it.
1. Now before we get started, please can you introduce yourself to our listeners?
I’m Maggi Evans and I’m passionate about liberating talent in organisations, teams and for individuals as well. I’m an author, speaker and a consultant and what I aim to do is bring together some of the academic background but make it practical and applicable to organisations.
I’ve been inspired to look at this because I’ve been really frustrated about the way that talent is managed in most organisations and it’s really not fit for purpose for the future, which I’m sure we’ll talk about.
I’ve worked with a number of different people with some co-authors such as Dr Andrew Rothwell, and also had lots of conversations and interviews with people to help to develop the thinking.
In terms of my personal career, I had ten years in learning and development in HR roles and I’ve been consulting for the last twenty years across a wide variety of sectors and organisations. Throughout my career, I’ve been really privileged to meet some amazing people.
2. So, the world of work is evolving at an unprecedented rate. What do you think are the key forces at play and what impact do you think these are having on how leaders manage talent?
It’s really difficult. We read so much about the change in organisations and you can kind of slice it in lots of different ways, so I tend to think of it as five key but interrelated themes.
So, there’s the macro-structures, the relationships, structures and dependencies between organisations with new business models. From a talent point of view for leaders, that means that they may no longer employ talented people that they rely on.
Another change is some of the internal structures. We’ve all been through lots and lots of restructures and operating models are changing, reporting lines are changing and for leaders managing talent, the implication of that is that we’re having to rapidly adapt to changing situations and the idea of teams and collaboration becomes much more important.
We’ve all heard about demographic changes and that’s the third change that we’re experiencing. Longer working life, I know at Hays you’ve done some blogs before on the hundred-year life and that has a massive impact, as does technological change and career changes as well. So, in the last ten years there’s been a consistent theme that we need to take a much more personalised approach to careers and that’s one of the things that it picks up on in talent liberation as well.
So, for me, I think three implications of these changes really stand out: 1. The talent – it has got to be strategically important – talent may not be employed by you. 2. Workforce agility is crucial for success, and 3. there needs to be more of a partnership relationship between the individual and the organisation.
3. Now in your answers, you of course touch on talent liberation as a different way of thinking about and tackling the talent challenges facing organisations today.
What exactly do you mean by talent liberation?
Talent liberation is a different way of thinking and I’ve identified five premises that it’s based on, so I’ll go through those five premises to introduce it.
- So firstly, one of the problems with the current way of thinking is we tend to think that there’s a scarcity of talent and that we haven’t got enough of it. That drives all sorts of behaviours in terms of “We’ve got to have this battle, we’ve got to fight for the talent”, and it’s largely driven by people looking for talent that is ready-now. But, the talent liberation premise is that talent isn’t as scarce as we think, and leaders can identify hidden sources of talent and help everyone to work at their personal best, and that will drive competitive advantage. I sometimes draw the analogy to women doctors. Back in 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman doctor and it took a long time in the early 1900’s, there were a few women doctors. Now more than 50% of doctors qualifying are female in the UK and that’s not because women are suddenly that much more talented, it’s because we’ve got much better at giving them the opportunities. When you look at a lot of the data, there’s lots of talent within organisations that we’re not tapping into, and actually talent isn’t as scarce as we think. So that’s the first premise.
- If I move on to the second premise, a lot of talent management is based on individual heroes. So, you’ve got the one-star person who can come in and they will absolutely transform things for you. But, when you look at what drives success in organisations, a lot of it is about the teams as well as the individuals and you get an individual who’s very talented and successful in one sphere, and that doesn’t mean to say they’re going to be able to replicate it somewhere else. So, talent liberation also looks at the importance of teams and driving competitive advantage by getting teams working brilliantly together and getting rid of any of the friction between teams and driving an organisation to really support collaboration.
- The third premise of talent liberation is that we need to be responsive to changing talent needs. We no longer can predict where an organisation is going to be in five, ten years’ time, and yet a lot of our talent management approaches are based on the idea of a stable organisation and were developed back in the 1950’s when you could predict where an organisation would be going. Therefore, you could do manpower plans, succession plans were fairly static, et cetera. But, organisations like the consulting group, Bain, are very keen to point out that it’s fast adaptation that drives organisational success rather than having one clear long-term strategy that they stick to. So, the talent approach needs to be responsive as well, we need to be very agile. We need to think about the different scenarios that an organisation may pursue and then work out what the talent implications of that are, what the risks are, and then move it forward.
- The fourth one is about formal process. A lot of talent management tends to focus on the formal processes. One HR director said to me recently, “We’ve got so wrapped up in the process, we’ve forgotten the purpose” and certainly, when you talk to people about talent management, that seems to be the case. So, we need to look at the culture as well, because it’s the culture that helps individuals to perform, it’s having those informal conversations with their line manager who says, “What else can you offer? How can I help you to do the best work of your life?” So, we need to look at the culture, feedback and the ways in which we’re helping individuals be at their best every day.
- The final point picks up again on the, the partnership between the organisation and the person. For me, talent liberation is about finding that sweet spot between what the organisation needs and what the individual wants – and that’s the place where you can really drive engagement. You can drive discretionary effort and you’ll get people that love working for you and want to stay.
4. So, your five premises of talent liberation all sound like very sensible practical statements. But do you think they can be difficult to act on and why might that be?
I think they can be, it’s interesting when you talk to leaders and HR directors, they say, “Yes, it makes so much sense. Why haven’t we done it like that before?” And I think there’s lots of reasons why it hasn’t been done before because a lot of academic literature suggests a lot of these things. They’re not entirely new, but the way talent management is practised often doesn’t reflect them.
And I think people processes are often in a real rhythm. So, it’s once a year we do our succession planning, once a year we do our talent review, once a year we do our pay review and it doesn’t get questioned.
So, I think it’s about helping organisations to step back and ask the question, “What are we really trying to achieve? How does this drive competitive advantage and how does it reduce risk?” and, actually, the steps aren’t difficult if you have those questions in mind.
5. So obviously the talent challenges each organisation faces are unique. Are there any tools you’d recommend listeners should use to help them effectively navigate the talent landscape within their own businesses?
Yes, I think what for me is important is firstly, anything you do is strategic, so it thinks about those future scenarios of the business, the competitive advantage, that it’s risk-based as we’ve already said, and that it looks across the whole system of the organisation.
So, instead of just looking at people processes, it looks at the leaders; What can the leaders do? What’s their role in liberating talent? What’s the culture? How do we work in partnership? What level of transparency is there? So, it’s strategic, it’s across the whole system and it’s risk-based.
From my research and consulting work, I’ve wrapped those together in a consulting tool that I use, and other people can use within their organisations as well. And I’ve called it the Talent Compass because of that navigation. It provides a framework and some challenging questions to help organisations really think about what’s going on in their organisation, what will drive that competitive advantage, how does the system interact and where are the key risks? And then helps identify what actions can be taken to address those key risks, which may or may not be succession planning and some of the things that are already taking place.
So, one example is, I’ve worked with a business and they identified their key risk was poor short-term availability of people with a specific set of skills. So, their solution was to identify people who had the foundation skills and implement a fast track development program, so they could readily access people with the skills that they needed to manage that short-term risk.
Another business had a much longer-term issue of availability. So, they started looking at new sources of people who could be trained in this particular sphere and I’ve seen businesses successfully taking ex-military personnel and investing effort in social mobility in order to find new sources of talent and to train them so that they’re ready when they need them.
Some other businesses have identified the main risks as cultural. So, for example, if turnover is higher than you want it to be – some turnover helps, but if it is too high, then actually addressing the reasons why people are leaving could be the best thing you could do for your talent strategy because you can save huge amounts of money on recruitment, on training new people up and that may be the best talent investment you can make. So, it really does depend on where your risks are.
6. Most leaders should understand that their success depends on the performance of their teams and therefore liberating the challenge of their employees should be a top priority.
Let’s now dive into the practical ways in which leaders can liberate the talent within their team. In your book, you share five habits of a talent liberating leader. Could you talk through each of these for our listeners?
Yes, absolutely, and I’ve clearly borrowed some terminology here from the late Steven Covey. I think the idea of habits is very powerful for thinking about things that you can do every day. They’re not driven by a process, they’re just how you manage and lead. And as you say, leaders are really in the front line, so even if an overall organisation isn’t focused on liberating talent, you within your own micro-climate can create a real difference for your team. If your success depends on someone else’s performance, then it’s absolutely your job to help them to be the best they can be.
I’ve come across some amazing leaders and managers in my work, but a lot of research suggests that managers and leaders can do a lot more to help their team feel developed, cared for and enabled. And so, it’s really based on research and my consulting work that I’ve come up with these five habits.
So, I’ll go through the five habits and just give an overview and then we can talk about them in a bit more detail:
- Knowing your team
- Being a catalyst for growth
- Feeding back and feeding forward
- Looking forward
- Working in partnership
So, you can hear in just the language that is used, that it echoes a lot of the language we’ve used in talent liberation.
7. So, let’s go into these habits in a bit more detail. You mentioned the first one was knowing your team.
Do you have any advice for listeners who are perhaps struggling to create a real relationship with their team?
Yes, it seems obvious, doesn’t it? To know your team and most managers will invest time in thinking about their products, thinking about their customer, thinking about their strategy, and they also need to invest time in thinking about their team.
I’ve used four prompts in my work to help me understand people and in my coaching conversations with leaders to help you to understand your teams. So those are; What’s this person like at their best? What is it they’re doing? What’s their impact on themselves, on others, on the business, on their customers? What are the triggers for them being at their best, and how often are they the best?
Then it’s the same questions thinking about them at their worst. So, what are they doing? What’s their impact, the triggers and how often? And then it’s exploring what is it that needs to change for them to have more time at their best and what would the impact be on that and how could you do it, and that should be a conversation. Those three things, them at their best, them at their worst and what needs to change – should be a conversation with the individual and with others around them as well, so, you’re taking a much wider view. Then it’s about what could they do in the future. So, what are their aspirations, what is it they want to be doing? And that’s about knowing your team.
In terms of the real relationship, the biggest thing you can give your team is some time. People really flourish when you give them time, when you listen, when you come from a place – and this is one of Stephen Covey’s habits – to seek first to understand, and then to be understood and that time to understand where people are coming from is really important.
Would you like to expand upon that habit a bit?
Yes, I’ve heard some inspirational stories about managers who are fantastic catalysts for people’s growth – helping them to see new possibilities in themselves, so they’re stretched and it’s challenged them.
An example is somebody who had struggled at school and entered a manual job, they were encouraged and supported by their manager, they found they had a flair for what they were doing, they grew in confidence, they started working harder and started to be the person that other’s went to for advice, help and support. They got promoted to a team leader, then to a depot manager and now they’re on the succession plan for more senior roles.
If their manager hadn’t invested time upfront in helping them to build their confidence and to see that they could do it – they would have carried with them that feeling that they had at school – they were no good and weren’t going to amount to anything.
So, I find stories like that absolutely inspirational – and managers and leaders I talk to, when they can help be a catalyst for somebody’s growth, they love it – it’s one of the most satisfying parts of their job.
CIPD research suggests that 30% of employees feel they’re overqualified for their job, and 12% feel their organisation hasn’t inspired them to perform at their best. So that suggests that managers aren’t uniformly doing this ‘catalyst for growth’ . But there a lots of practical things that people can do, and it really doesn’t need to take more time , it is a habit – it’s about what you do every day.
8. So, do you have any advice for busy leaders who may find it hard to prioritise or find the time to invest in learning and development opportunities for their team?
Yes, absolutely, I think it’s not doing something different, but it’s doing things differently. So, projects are a massive opportunity for people to learn and broaden their experiences beyond the normal day-to-day job. Most leaders get involved in projects thinking who you can involve with you, is a great way of developing them.
Team meetings, they can often be transactional and somewhat dull, but things like asking everybody each week or one person each week to bring something new to the meeting – and it can become a critical source of learning, if you make it part of the agenda.
One-to-one updates and check-ins can be important as part of getting to know your team and for following up, what have you learned this week? What have you done that’s different? What do you want to learn next week? And getting that very much on the agenda. Coaching as we know is a key tool which does take more time.
There’s also something about taking some big bets on people. Most of us, when we look back on our careers, will talk about a time when we were absolutely in at the deep end as one of those times when we learned the most. So being willing, having a mindset that says, let me be willing to take a big bet on somebody and give them a very stretching project and that will be a great learning opportunity.
There’s also things about nudge, which is really interesting about how can we reinforce learning every day and some of that might be through your weekly meetings by asking people about it, but also sending out emails, sending out links, getting it talked about using things like this podcast and TED talks to share with other people. There’s so much information, data and creating an environment where people are nudged to look at different things regularly is a great way of doing it.
9. Now, we move on to habit number three, which was feeding back and feeding forward. Would you like to expand upon that at all?
Yes, feedback is a really interesting one, isn’t it? I’ve run numerous leadership programs over the years and feedback is a massively important skill, but so many people really struggle with it and feel very anxious about giving particularly constructive feedback. Praise can also be difficult to give sometimes, but for constructive feedback, people seem to have an internal dialogue that says; “How can I tell someone how to improve?” But research shows the importance of quality feedback for individual and organisational performance.
In terms of communicating the importance of feedback and how to do it, I’ve found the work by Kim Scott, who’s ex Google, YouTube and Apple, I think her work is brilliant in describing a way of giving feedback. She talks about radical candour and that’s an approach of caring deeply for the person, so you’ve got that personal relationship, you’ve got that partnership idea with an individual, but you’re also challenging directly. So, you’re being very clear and it’s a great framework for understanding, the power and importance of feedback. It helps people to be clear about what they’re saying instead of going around the houses a bit and leaving the person on the receiving end to join the dots – and they might not.
So, it’s a much better way of giving feedback and interestingly, the research shows that the best way of moving towards more feedback in an organisation or in a team, is for the leader to start asking for it. So that’s a great, practical thing that leaders can start to do and its feed forward as well as feeding back. For me, the feed forward bit is about the actionable bit, so, what is it you can do differently and how can improvements be made?
10. Do you have any advice for listeners who may find it uncomfortable or awkward to give praise or provide tough feedback in some cases?
Yes, I think for me there’s something about getting in the rhythm of the organisation. So, there’s probably two key types of feedback that most leaders will give. Those in the moment, rapid feedback and that’s great because you can have it very much as two way you can say; “What do you think went well, what didn’t go so well? What do you want to do differently next time?” And you can share your views as well, and that can get into the rhythm of an organisation. So, after every meeting, after every key project, just get into the rhythm of the organisation so it’s happening all the time.
Then as well as that quick fire, almost like a drill feedback. There’s also more reflective feedback that you need to plan and think about and in that case, you need to give it some time in the same way you would planning for a client meeting. So, you need to think about the examples of when the person is doing this activity well and when they’re not doing it well. You need to think about the impact, you need to think about how the other person might react and be clear on the support you can offer and – also the consequences if they do make this change and equally if they don’t make the change.
And I think, of the key things leaders can do in this, is rehearse it so quick-fire feedback, get it into the rhythm and for the more reflective feedback, plan it, think about it and then rehearse it.
11. So, on the fourth habit, which was looking forward. Would you like to expand a little bit around that habit and what that means?
Yes, sure. The fourth habit is really helped if you do some strategic thinking about what’s going to be happening in the future. So, something like the Talent Compass or thinking through the future scenarios for your bit of the organisation and maybe across the whole organisation as well.
Lots of team members are really crying out for conversations about their future and in my research, that’s one of the main things that people say is missing, tell me what the opportunities are. And yet leaders often shy away from these conversations because they’re really frightened of raising expectations or they don’t know what to say. But people need their sense of direction and they know you can’t make promises, they just want to have the time to explore it. And if you don’t engage in these conversations, there’s a real risk that somebody else will and somebody I work with says as a leader; “You need to have the head-hunter conversation before the head-hunter does” and I think that really sort of emphasises the importance.
You probably won’t be able to offer a clear career path, but if you’ve thought of future business needs and possible routes for developing in a role, you can help somebody think, what are their aspirations and where might they be able to develop those skills laterally? Where might they be able to develop their skills within their current role to make it more satisfying and where might they be able to develop their skills and move upwards? And it’s about working with them to paint a picture of their future.
12. You mentioned the importance of providing more clarity in terms of future career pathways for all employees.
How would you recommend leaders tackle this if realistically there are no career opportunities available at their organisation?
I imagine some leaders listening would be hesitant to initiate career conversations with their team members if this is the case.
Yes, I think it can be difficult for leaders because they’re under pressure to deliver their targets, et cetera, and the idea of them being open with somebody to say; “Well, we can’t offer you the career advancement that you want” is quite scary.
But those leaders and managers who I speak with who are brave, who do have these open conversations find it hugely beneficial because what it enables them to do is have open dialogue with the person, so the person keeps motivated. They may decide to stay for longer because actually they’re being treated with respect and you may be able to craft the job in some way, so they can still develop and grow in it.
But also, if they do decide to leave, you’ve got open dialogue. So, they’re motivated until they go, and you have advanced warning, so you can start to put some succession in place.
So, I absolutely recognise the fear, those leaders who I speak with who are open about it, find it’s a really great way of making sure your people, if they leave, leave as ‘good leavers’ and talk positively as ambassadors for your organisation.
13. Now the fifth and final habit was working in partnership. Once again, could you expand on that habit for us?
Yes, so this is really picking up on some of the changes in career and because we’re going to be having much longer working lives, we need to rethink our relationship between organisation and people working within the organisation.
For many leaders, thinking of your team as your customers is something completely alien. But for the book, I collected number of stories and there was a great story from here in Hays of a manager in Asia who is clear that his team are his customers and he sits down with them at induction and it’s all about what can I do to help you to perform at your best. And that’s just such a great conversation that lots of leaders don’t really have with their teams and the business results for this Hays office is testament to the power of this approach.
I think there’s a lot of learning we can all take from that about how to work in better partnership between the leader and the team and I talk about finding the ‘sweet spot’. So, the manager acting as a broker to find the sweet spot between what the individual wants, and the organisation needs. And this might encompass flexibility of working, it might encompass learning opportunities, sense of purpose and opportunities to do voluntary work, to expand skills learning – we don’t know – unless you have the conversation, you won’t know what will really enable the other person to thrive in their work.
So, it’s about exploring what the person wants for the future, informing them of the options that are available to them and understanding what the common ground is, and working together to find a way that meets what the organisation wants, and the individual wants as well.
14. So what advice would you give to our listeners who sense that their employees might not be being as honest with them as they would like?
Yes, and it’s often the way. It’s really interesting again, collecting stories for the book, how much game playing goes on and often the game playing happens because there isn’t trust.
So, people play the role and say, “Oh of course I’m globally mobile, I can go any way you want”, then they get offered a foreign assignment and its “I can’t”. And it’s about building that trust and making it okay to have the honest conversation and often for the leader, it’s about you being open and honest first.
15. Thank you very much. You’ve given us a lot of food for thought here.
We have one final question. It’s a question that we ask all our podcast, guests, what do you think are the top three qualities that make a good leader?
It’s very difficult, this one. in the UK, we have a long running radio show, ‘Desert Island Disks’. They’re given eight tracks. Now eight leadership qualities can be quite tough and you’re only giving me three, so I feel a bit on edge here.
But I’ve, I’ve got three that I’m going to go through with a number of qualifiers:
- Self-awareness: You understand your impact on others and you can adapt your behaviour.
- Caring relationships: You genuinely care about those you work with and treat people with respect.
- Future vision: You can understand the direction and you’ve got drive and ambition for doing something moving forwards.
But, I’d want to add in lots of qualifiers. So, you need to be a great communicator, you need to be resilient, you need to be practical and you need to get things done.
So, lots of other things, but I’d say, if I could only have three – self-awareness, caring relationships, future vision.
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